The Enemy Within, which drops weekly on Lightbox from today, combines the funnest parts of a spy thriller with the complexity of a character study, thanks to a compelling lead performance. Sam Brooks reviews.
The title ‘The Enemy Within’ is one of those multi-entendre’d ones that you can tell someone was very satisfied to come up with.
Does it refer to our protagonist/antagonist Erica Shepherd (Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter), a CIA agent who turned traitor on her country?
Does it refer to the thousands of foreign agents within the USA, the hunting down of which forms the backbone of the series?
Or does it refer to the desires, fears and flaws within the characters that lead them to making mistakes?
The Enemy Within, as a show, makes a case for being all of the above.
In the vein of The Blacklist, Hannibal, or my personal preference and touchstone, the second season of Alias, The Enemy Within follows FBI agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) and the aforementioned Erica Shepherd as the former tries to take down the incredibly Eastern European-ly named Mikhail Vassily Tov, a Russian criminal who has pulled off many terror attacks within the USA already.
Of course, things get complicated. When Erica turned traitor on her country, four agents were killed. One of them was Keaton’s fiance, Lane. You would think this would make Keaton almost uniquely unqualified to work with Erica, but it also turns out the person who Erica was working for when she turned traitor was, of course, Tov, a case he’s been working for three years. So when the opportunity comes up to work together, Keaton is not exactly thrilled to work with the duplicitous traitor who is directly responsible for the death of his fiance, and Shepherd isn’t exactly excited to be working at all.
To make matters worse, Erica is really, incredibly good at her job. Like, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock good. When the FBI finally, reluctantly, pull her out of her three years of confinement and bring her into the office, the show takes the time to show us all the details she’s picking up – an agent’s watch, another agent quickly putting her shoes back on, another agent’s facial twitch when they speak. Erica Shepherd has the tools at her disposal, and that makes her as difficult to trust as, you know, her actual treason does.
Which brings me to the biggest selling point of The Enemy Within, and it’s one that makes the entire show not just worthwhile but fascinating, complex viewing: Jennifer Carpenter.
It’s been six years since we’ve seen her in Dexter, where she was the vital glue that kept that series from smashing into a thousand bloody smithereens, and her return to the small screen in a role that allows her to roll around in complexity and layers is a goddamned treat. The pilot gives her a lot of moments to show off her talent for pulling the rug slowly out from underneath her own character and then stabilizing herself quickly again. Her first scene with Keaton, where he is skeptically trying to enlist her assistance, is an absolute slam-dunk in this regard.
In the space of one scene, we see Erica’s distrust of Keaton, but also her hope. She wants to get out of confinement. She wants to atone for her treason. She wants to see her kids. But most of all, she doesn’t want to be seen wanting all this, because if she is, then Keaton gets the upper hand.
Or maybe she doesn’t want any of this stuff, and it’s an act. Part of the brilliance – and honestly the hook – of The Enemy Within is that we shouldn’t trust Erica Shepherd. She’s too good at being a spy to ever trust as a human being. As establishing moment for the character, the scene is great. As a showcase for Carpenter, it’s even better. Finally, as a hook for the series, it’s brilliant. I want to see what Erica Shepherd does and I want to see who she really is.
The Enemy Within is a show that combines all the best things of spy dramas – the thriller pace, the twists and turns, and frankly, the visceral pleasure of seeing someone be very good at complicated stuff is hard to beat – with all the complex detail of a character study, thanks to Carpenter. The actress gives us complete clarity on what is going on in Erica’s head while also keeping us guessing as to what’s really going on.
It’s a highwire act, and if the show can keep it going for an entire season, we’ve got a winner on our hands.
Episodes of The Enemy Within drop weekly on Lightbox from today.
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